Friday, July 09, 2010

Alasdair Roberts & Friends: Too Long In This Condition

Alasdair Roberts & Friends
Too Long In This Condition
Rating: 2.5/5.0
Label: Drag City

If ever there was a voice ready-made for singing folk ballads, it's Alasdair Roberts.' Roberts sings in a distinctly Scottish brogue; his voice sounds like it could well be from another musical era, one where a rose and a brier grow from young William and Barbara Allen's gravestones, criminals are hung from gibbets and the hair of a drowned girl is used for the strings of a fiddle that magically tells how her sister killed her. No Earthly Man (2005), a collection of traditional British and death ballads, was a natural fit for the musician, evoking those mystical and mysterious bygone days, even if the manner in which its songs were arranged squarely marked him as a contemporary folk singer.

All of which should make Too Long In This Condition - another collection of quaint old songs, plus one written by the musician's father - a brilliant release. Roberts is clearly comfortable with performing traditional music, as several of the songs included here have been part of his live shows in recent years, but familiarity and earnestness can have their drawbacks, and despite a mix of revered standards like "Barbara Allen" and "The Golden Vanity," as well as a few delightfully obscure inclusions like "Long Lankin," Too Long too often feels boring, mostly humorless and overly reverential. The versions of "Little Sir Hugh" and "The Lover's Ghost" in particular have all the characteristics of rotting museum pieces kept under glass; both songs are fairly cumbersome and plodding, lacking any real sense of vitality. Other songs are performed so goddamn seriously that they evoke images of coffeehouse folksingers the world over, with "What Put the Blood on Your Right Shoulder?" and "The Burning of Auchindoun" absolutely reeking of stone-faced and coldly sober sincerity. Roberts and his backing band treat these songs like sacred hymns, but this approach only presents a frustratingly reductionist view of these tunes.

The album does have its merits, though any real flashes of brilliance are rare. Too Long begins magnificently, as its first four songs - "The Daemon Lover," "Young Emily," "Long Lankin" and "The Two Sisters" - manage to sound ingrained in the past but also relevant for this decade. The album ends nicely as well: though the story that unravels in "Barbara Allen" can be construed as too melodramatic by modern listeners - who dies of a broken heart these days? - Roberts' version masterfully captures that song's ambiguity toward both William and the title character, both of whom are impetuous, tragic and maybe just a little bit stupid. The album also includes detailed liner notes about each song's provenance, as well as a bibliography/historiography of sorts, a handy guide for anyone interested in tracking down other versions of the songs included here.

It's no easy feat covering such songs that contain their own unique symbolism and mythology, as well as a propensity for fair maidens, bonnie lasses and the phrase "but for the love of thee." Roberts gives it his best effort on Too Long In This Condition but the results are scattershot and inconsistent. It's a nice enough release, but for someone as well-versed in these strange little tales as Roberts, expectations run high. More often than not those expectations aren't met, regardless of however well-suited the musician is for this content.

No comments: